Executive Chef Alan Gaul has fond childhood memories of going to the Patio Restaurant at the former Hess’s Department Store in Allentown. After graduating from the culinary arts program at Northampton Community College (NCC), a circuitous journey would later lead him to manage the kitchen of the iconic restaurant. Serendipitously, decades later, Gaul and his fiancé Christine Serrill opened the Red Ticket Café that faces the site of that former Allentown landmark.
Since October of 2022, Gaul and Serrill have operated the café at 840 West Hamilton Street, across Hamilton Boulevard from the PPL Center. The café serves breakfast and lunch on weekdays, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. In addition, the couple operates a successful food truck and catering business from the restaurant’s kitchen.
Gaul’s attraction to food service began as a child. He remembers having fun as a boy scout cooking with his father. As a teen, he worked at a restaurant in Emmaus, making cheesesteaks. After high school, he enrolled in an accounting program but soon learned that a desk career wasn’t for him. He dropped out and got a job with the Wood Company at Cedar Crest College, where his mother worked. At an event, he met Scott Kalamar, an associate professor teaching in NCC’s culinary arts program, who encouraged Gaul to enroll.
Gaul believes NCC’s culinary arts program was – and still is – as good as more distant and expensive culinary schools. He credits the program for providing him with the basics needed to start a career as a chef. Gaul made excellent connections at NCC, including then instructor and lifelong friend Duncan Howden, who later opened and operated Duncan’s Blue Lantern restaurant in Bath.
“Duncan was an awesome mentor,” Gaul says. “He made me want to learn more. He was a huge part of why I wanted to have a career as a chef.” Through NCC’s program, he learned kitchen skills like cutting meats, safely preparing and storing food, and choosing pans for different tasks. The program’s students operate a live restaurant open to the public, Hampton Winds. They take turns performing various kitchen and dining room functions. Gaul particularly enjoyed interacting with the customers, such as waiting on tables and presenting the dessert cart.
Shortly after graduating NCC in 1193, Gaul began working at the Patio Restaurant, where his aunt worked as a waitress. Soon, he was running the huge kitchen until the department store closed a year and a half later.
Since then, like most chefs, Gaul has had many different roles – 10 years with Wegmans grocery store and five years with the Wood Company. There, he managed the kitchens of retirement communities, including the Lutheran Home at Topton and Moravian Hall Square in Nazareth. Never solely motivated by money, Gaul selects his positions based on what he can offer – and can learn. For example, he once worked part-time at an ice cream shop, just to learn how to make ice cream.
Several years ago, Gaul began dating Serrill. She worked at a bank. But baking was her creative outlet. She bought a tent and began selling baked goods at events. She eventually purchased a large beaten-up box food truck and persuaded Gaul to help her spruce it up. The Red Ticket Food Truck was born.
Working at a whirlwind pace, Gaul recalls painting the truck on the same day of their first event. “That first day, Gaul quit three times,” says Serrill, chuckling.
Gaul nods in agreement, adding, “At first, we did everything wrong. Everyone thinks they can make it with a food truck, but it’s much harder than you realize. When you’re traveling, everything moves. You must tie everything down, or it falls out the doors.”
The pair complement one another. Serrill’s creative; Gaul’s tech savvy. She’s a dreamer; he’s a realist. “I come up with these crazy ideas, and he makes it taste amazing,” she says.
Soon business boomed. In addition to community events, they had a steady schedule of gigs at local breweries and wineries. After three months, Serrill quit her bank job. Gaul resigned as manager of the kitchen of a chain restaurant, a well-paying but uninspiring position.
As the business grew, Gaul told Serrill he needed a bigger kitchen. Serrill, who doesn’t believe in “can’t,” found him the Hamilton Street location. They signed a lease for the kitchen, which came with the dining area.
As long as they already had the dining space, they decided to take online and in-restaurant pick-up orders. Unlike a traditional restaurant, the café doesn’t have a wait staff. The pair recently purchased a kiosk to simplify ordering. Customers are welcome to eat in the café, which has tabletop games throughout the area.
The café also boasts a well-stocked espresso bar and a variety of Serrill’s freshly baked goodies. All the food is made from scratch with fresh ingredients. They envision the café’s ambiance as a modern twist on a 50’s diner, complete with old-fashioned floats like those Hess’s Patio Restaurant once served. The pair look forward to family gatherings and children’s birthday parties in the café.
The café is named after a childhood memory. One of five children raised by a single mother, Serill’s family’s income qualified her for free lunches. She received a red ticket that the cafeteria staff punched each day. She values those experiences that shaped her character and taught her to appreciate life’s gifts – counting their relationship and what they’ve made together among them.